Saturday, 27 November 2010


The protests seem to be going well.

There’s still a dimwitted lack of understanding of the nature of these actions - too many television and newspaper reporters seem to be operating under the assumption that those of the protesters who are currently students are only attempting to get their own fees waived. A moment’s consideration would of course reveal that these people will all be working and paying back their loans by the time the Browne proposals are in full effect. The inability to comprehend the idea that people can have motivations other than self-interest reveals far more about the Burleyesque sections of the media than it does about the marchers. The archetype of the spoiled, selfish student living it up on taxpayer money, never particularly fair, is now positively antiquated. Viz - often a reliable social barometer - dropped its 'Student Grant' character years ago, but it's being dug up and spat back at us in 2010. Desperate stuff.

To dismiss the students (as as every organ in the land seemed to do) as wanting ‘something for nothing’ or ‘everything handed to them on a plate’ is to completely, wilfully misunderstand the situation. The immediate demand of the protesters was for a proposed fee increase to be scrapped. In other words, for the maintenance of a situation in which students work jobs in term-time, live in cheaply built (but tastefully coloured!) PFI rabbit hutches, study hard, and three years later, accept a debt measured in the tens of thousands that will hang over them for most of their adult lives. Compassion for these students might be dulled by the thought that they will eventually be earning high salaries - the risible Gove defended the Browne Report with the uncannily bad argument “why should a postman subsidise someone who will go on to become a millionaire?” - but in times like these, how many students (even those in vocational subjects) do we really believe will be prospering after they graduate? It should be obvious that what these students want is something for something - the prospect of some kind of reward for all of the hard work and financial risk they‘ve undertaken. If anything, it’s a display of the kind of ‘prudent household management’ that the Coalition seem so keen on with the delightful homespun analogies they’re happy to trot out in other contexts.

It all reminded me of the more incoherent-of-Tunbridge-Wells letters to the Metro in the wake of the anti-bailout march two years ago - one correspondent implausibly claimed that the young scruffniks were only out to "jump on the free money bandwagon".

The Labour party hasn’t covered itself in glory on this issue, but no matter - oppositional arguments and ‘Punch and Judy politics’ may soon become a thing of the past. One effect of the Browne measures is that it will become all the more difficult for working-class kids to study Politics (along with History, International Relations, PPE and related subjects) - come 2030, we could yet see an all-Bullingdon House of Commons…


Entitlement seems to be the topic of the day. Who has a right to what? Does anyone have a right to anything they don’t work for? We could at this point talk about the arbitrary and essentially non-productive nature of most (paid) jobs, but let’s leave that thread unpulled. If the consensus at present is that nobody has a right to anything much, it hasn’t always been so - there have been plenty of counter-arguments. Thomas Paine wrote about how every man has a right to share in the common wealth (even in these post-crash times, even with a growing population, an equitable distribution of UK property assets would come to £110k per adult). Crass made the point more bluntly - "do they owe us a living? ‘course they fucking do!"

Apparently the outstanding problem with the welfare state is ‘benefit dependency’ - one of those neologisms that may spin your brain into non-Euclidean shapes, suggesting as it does that it would be okay for an independently wealthy person to claim benefits, because they wouldn’t be dependent on the benefits, and could come off any time they wanted. Every article on the subject, even those in the right-wing press, praise the welfare state as a noble idea, but not something that can ever be used by real people - suddenly the Borstal officer from Brass Eye looms in front of us - ‘yes, we have a welfare state, but DON’T ACTUALLY USE IT! WHERE’S YOUR SELF RE-COCKING-SPECT?

Right now anything that doesn’t cover itself financially is in the Coalition’s gunsights. Education shouldn’t be subsidised (in the zeitgeist-capturing language of the Browne Report, “Institutions do not compete for this funding – they get it automatically. Our proposals will shift toward a more dynamic system of funding”) and students should have to pay for themselves. Dolescum shouldn’t be subsidised - they should have to work for their dole, and be bloody grateful they get anything at all (previewed in this miserable case - “nobody owes you a living, not even your employer.”). And while modern Britain's Three Faces of Evil (students, dolies, public sector workers) are the subject of most attention, the principles are being applied to a much wider spread of targets.

New Labour introduced us to the concept of ‘efficiency savings’ - local authority department budgets being trimmed by 3%, year on year, regardless of need or circumstances. In most circumstances there would have been fat to be trimmed, and efficiencies were duly made, but the sheer block-headed crudity of the measure is what stands out. Assuming for the sake of argument that a council had made all possible cuts, and couldn’t trim any further without adversely effecting services, there was no mechanism for appeal or waiver - they simply had to go ahead and find another 3%. This approach has been enthusiastically adopted by the Coalition and applied to the entire budget. One particularly obtuse display came via the Ministry of Justice, who announced a major reduction of funding for Legal Aid, meaning that “[Aid] for civil cases will all but disappear”. The measure was justified as a way of addressing “the great challenge of tackling the ballooning legal aid bill“. Never mind why the Legal Aid bill was so high, or why Legal Aid was introduced in the first place, or whether widespread access to justice is an important social good. The issue of whether particular spending is justified has apparently become specious and academic. Turn big numbers into small numbers, and screw the context.

The economic argument (and the alibi given by the Liberal Democrats to explain their about-face on the fees issue) is that we, as a nation, don’t have the money for things anymore. We certainly can't afford to pay tuition fees, and give grants rather than loans. We managed both of those things for several decades up to 1997, without the economy collapsing around our ears and people pushing wheelbarrows of money through the streets and/or queueing for bread and salt, but never mind.

The vision of the world being presented to us by the powers that be, and cheerfully swallowed by the readers of the Daily Mail et al, is one in which it is simply not possible to provide a decent home, lifestyle, and education for all - there is not enough to go around. This idea is another one that’s only attained currency relatively recently - up until the 1970s, eminent polymaths like Buckminster Fuller were setting out their realistically-costed visions of a better future which everyone in the world could hope to share. But at around the same time that modernist architecture fell out of vogue, so did modernist political planning - now the ethos of the day is Hobbesian self-reliance. It appeals to a certain kind of macho mindset, and enables the powerful to do little while feeling better about themselves, so it endures.

Presented with this story, there are two possible responses for the ruled. First, the mindset of the gangster and the kapo - responding to communal desperation by shoring up their own positions at the expense of others’ - accepting (and reinforcing) the grammar of the official narrative on working class prospects while pleading a partial exception in their own cases. So we have to endure the self-justifying cries of ‘don’t hate the player, hate the game,’ from people who have done well enough out of the game and will continue to do so.

The second is to organise, co-operate, and resist.


What’s perhaps worse is that this programme of cuts isn't just a crude application of every-man-for-himself individualism. It’s even more cynical than that. Certain areas of society that demonstrably don’t pay for themselves (the aristocracy, the City, and that’s without getting into debates about the actual value of management consultancy and the like) are being spared, even rewarded, while those areas of the arts and education that have attempted to adjust to business ontology, and become profit-making enterprises, are being attacked all the same.

We’re going to see a lot more of this selective poverty-pleading over the next four years, always directed at the usual Conservative targets. As long as we’re being told all of the things we can’t afford, it may be productive to talk about the things we apparently can afford - the £50bn being chucked in the direction of one-time economic policy exemplar Ireland, for one. There’s already talk of another, larger, British bailout in the wind, which has an uncomfortable ring of plausibility about it. If not a bailout, then we'll perhaps enjoy some zany scheme to 'stimulate private sector growth' - because if the history of PFI has taught us one thing, it's that our dynamic private sector won't get out of bed without cast-iron guarantees against financial loss. What’s mildly ironic is that, as financial manoeuvres go, this transfer of public wealth is just as dicey and unreliable an investment as a bundle of rotten mortgages, and won't necessarily lead to any increase in liquidity. But that’s for the economists to debate - for the rest of us, it’s going to mean an even larger program of ‘necessary’ cuts that will doubtless also be blamed on the unemployed and the public sector, assuming any of either remain by that time.

(Big Cuts Posts were all the rage a few weeks ago - I’d single out these three in particular.)